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When It All Began

5 jewelers share their origin stories, and what you can learn from them

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THINK BACK to how it all began.

You made your girlfriend a bracelet out of beads; you began selling turquoise out of the trunk of your car; you set up a booth at a local craft fair. Your first sale was a toe ring, a watch battery, or maybe even a diamond engagement ring.

However it began — and there are as many stories as there are retailers — you had an idea and you turned it into a business.

David Brown, president of the Edge Retail Academy, says it’s always exciting — at the beginning — to open a retail jewelry store.

“Everyone starts out with this great vision and energy and passion and drive, and they can’t wait to get the keys and open the door because they have this dream lifestyle they’ve envisioned for themselves. And sadly, for many retailers, this dream turns into a nightmare.”

One problem can be that without a clear objective — and this is just as true for long-existing stores — owning your business can begin to feel more like you bought yourself a somewhat thankless job.

To avoid burnout, fatigue and resentment, Brown says, identify not only your objectives but also the strategy and resources you’ll use to get there. Consider where you want to end up and work backward from there.

“I can’t be a $3 million store if I’ve got the resources of a $1 million dollar store or the same level of thinking,” he says.

Joanna Bradshaw, author of Be a Millionaire Shopkeeper: How Your Independent Shop Can Compete with the Big Guys, says every business needs a mission statement. It describes your purpose, your niche in the marketplace, the focus of your business and its aims. A good business plan, aligned with your mission statement, can keep you on track to reach your objectives, Bradshaw says. View your business plan as a blueprint and a living document, reviewing it often and updating it every year.

Brown warns that flexibility and adaptability need to be built into your business plan for best results these days.

Modern jewelers also will struggle if they are generalists. Instead, Brown says, “decide what to specialize in and be the best at that chosen path that you can be.” Your unique selling proposition is your competitive edge, whether it’s location, specialization, customization or outstanding customer service.

Michael Lebowitz, director of jewelry for White Pine Trading, which offers consultant services, spent 40 years behind the counter in a family retail business. On a day-to-day basis, it can be tough to keep up the excitement. “But an owner or manager is much like a professional coach, both a life coach and a sports coach. It’s up to him or her to train and nurture the staff, to help them understand that what they are putting in their customer’s hand is going to light up someone’s eyes and put a smile on someone’s face.”

Leibowitz says when it comes to the grand opening, retailers must make a great first impression in three key areas — product, presentation and promotion. “It is important to show the world who you are, to show the right merchandise and plan a promotion around that merchandise. In 2014, from a product standpoint, you are what you sell and you have only one chance to make a good first impression.”

Presentation, too, is more important than ever. Pay attention to traffic flow, lighting, color and displays, Leibowitz says. “Lighting has gone so high-tech, and it is now so wonderful to show off diamonds and colored stones. There’s no reason a customer should look into the showcase and not be overwhelmed by glitter.”

As you read the “beginnings” stories that follow, take a few minutes to look back on your own beginning and ask yourself what you’ve learned from the progression of your business and what you can do today to make sure your business plan is a living document.

And understand, Brown says, that you can have the successful jewelry store of your dreams and a wonderful quality of life at the same time.

True Tales: More Jewelers’ Origin Stories

HARRIS JEWELERS: “We purchased a 300-square foot store in 1998 for $25,000,” says Karen Fitzpatrick of Harris Jewelers in Rio Rancho, NM. “We had a man on our first day come in for a battery and he said that we were robbing the community charging $6 for a battery and he would tell all of his friends never to shop our store. Fifteen years later we own a 9,000-square-foot building, have 11 employees and have won countless community service awards.”

VALENTINE’S JEWELRY: “For a year and a half I sold jewelry out of a blue plastic toolbox,” says Elva Valentine of Valentine’s Jewelry in Dallas, PA. “Then I moved into one room in an antique shop, and I gradually grew and grew, until now I have the whole building. ”

TROY SHOPPE JEWELLERS: “My first store was scary,” says David Blitt of Troy Shoppe Jewellers in Calgary. “Two walls in a small upstairs vintage building. The front door did not even have a lock. Every night we would put the merchandise in a bag and carry it to our car that was a two-block walk through downtown. It scares me to think of the chances we took.”

CONTEMPORARY CONCEPTS: “When I opened my store, it was a few days before I had a sale,” says Janne Etz of Contemporary Concepts in Cocoa, FL, “and that first sale was a $6 toe ring. The lady pulled out her checkbook and started writing the check. When she asked how to make it out, I told her my name rather than my business so I could go cash it. I wanted to put the first dollar in a frame on the wall. She insisted on giving me an extra dollar in cash. That dollar is still in a frame 21 years later!”

 


 

What To Consider From the Beginning (and Reminders to Those Already In Business)

1. Consider what you want your end business to look like and work back from that.

2. Take advantage of industry education and learning from others. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel.

3. Be ambitious. A lot of people go into it very cautiously. They buy themselves a job instead of creating a business with a vision. At the end of the day, ask yourself why are you doing this?

4. Find a great financial planner and CPA.

5. Before you look at vendors, define what you want your business to look like. Do you want a bridal store? A bead store? Then partner with vendors that can really help you with your business success.

6. Launch your inventory effectively. Most people go to shows, buy product, bring it back to the store and put it on a shelf. Train your staff about it. You can’t sell a secret. Let people know you have it.

7. Know what you are good at and recognize your own shortcomings. Then create a team of people who are good at what you are lacking. It’s only a weakness if you don’t recognize it.

8. Create a culture that people want to work in. This will help ensure that your customers have the best experience in the world.

9. Understand the science of retail: Know your stock turn and key performance indicators to understand the health of your business. It’s like knowing your blood pressure when it comes to knowing your own health.

10. Lead the business, set the vision and the direction, keep it on track.

11. Join a group of peers in the jewelry industry as well as a local group representing a variety of local businesses.

12. Know where you are financially. Don’t wait for your accountant. You need to know by the first week in January whether you’re on track or off track.

Reminders provided by David Brown of the Edge Retail Academy
 


Revolution Jewelry Works, Colorado Springs, CO

OWNERS: Jennifer Farnes; FOUNDED: 2013; EMPLOYEES: 1; UNIQUE SELLING PROPOSITION: Custom-cut gemstones

 

JENNIFER FARNES, a rock hound since she was a kid, took a first anniversary trip to Montana with her husband, Jeremy, in 2003, and came home lugging 10 pounds of quartz crystal. Although Jeremy had talked about buying Jennifer a diamond pendant, she suggested they have one of the rocks cut instead.

That’s how she met a stonecutter who offered her an apprenticeship, Eventually, she decided to pursue stone-cutting full time. Fast forward to May 2013 — 10 years into her profession as a master faceter — and Farnes was in the process of purchasing an established jewelry store. Two weeks before the closing was scheduled, the owners backed out of the deal.

“I was sitting on our bed, just bawling my eyes out and my husband thinks somebody has died. He said it just wasn’t meant to be, that something will come along. We went to sleep and the next morning, he said, ‘This was meant to happen because you need to open your own place.’ It had never dawned on me that that was an option. As it turned out, the type of setup I wanted would be half the cost, and it meant that instead of buying someone else’s vision I could create my own.”

Working with the bank, the Small Business Administration and local contractors she knew through a networking group, she was able to build out the space and open in November.

She made the build-out a social media event, letting customers vote online about the color-scheme and layout, and updating followers daily on how the construction progressed with photos.

“It has made our existing customers feel even closer to us, and we have attracted many new out-of-state people via their friends sharing our posts,” she says.

She is focusing on custom design, repairs and ordering basics from the Stuller catalog as needed, as well as inviting American jewelry artists to showcase their work on memo. So far, 10 designers have signed on, based on her references in the industry as a stonecutter.

“The first day was amazing,” she says. “A couple of repairs turned into a $1,300 sale.” Traffic and sales continued to pick up throughout November and a grand opening party drew more than 100 people.

The 1,274 square foot store — with an additional 400 square foot loft — was designed with an industrial look and an open floor plan. Farnes envisioned a fusion of wood and metal, for a look both luxurious and industrial. A wrap-around half wall with a window allows views of stones being cut.

“It’s really modern, with kind of a different twist,” she says. “It’s what I had in my head all along. If I had bought the other store, I would have been buying someone else’s dream. This is an opportunity to make my dream come to life.”

Although she started with one employee, metalsmith Pedro Llanas, she was immediately so busy she’s thinking of adding staff already.

She continues to take on work for jewelers, including custom cuts.

“Jewelers all over the country send me stones for repair. I wouldn’t be at the place I am now if it weren’t for the support of all those jewelers. I can’t give that up.”

WHAT I’VE LEARNED

Jennifer Farnes

  • If you hit a roadblock, try sleeping on it. Inspiration might come in the morning.
  • Dare to think big.
  • Generate excitement for a new store — or a remodel — through social media by inviting input into the store’s color scheme and layout.

Nine-Eighteen, Dallas, TX

OWNERS: Kim Burgan and Darin Kunz; FOUNDED: 2011; EMPLOYEES: 3 full-time; 2 interns; UNIQUE SELLING PROPOSITION: Exclusivity

 

 

SIBLINGS THROUGH MARRIAGE, Darin Kunz and Kim Burgan began working together in a jewelry store when they were just kids. Their parents met and fell in love while working in a Dallas jewelry store, and wed on Sept. 18, 1976.

In 2011, Kunz and Burgan opened Nine-Eighteen, a fast-rising Dallas jewelry boutique named for that important day in their shared history. It seems inevitable, looking back.

“It’s in our bones,” Burgan says. “This is the industry we grew up in. We were 10 or 11 and in the store, doing the grunt work, wrapping gifts, cleaning cases, serving drinks. And we did that all through college.”

After that, they both detoured into the corporate world. But when Burgan and her husband adopted three children a few years ago, she wanted to travel less. “If I was going to work that hard I wanted to work for me, not someone else. Darin said, ‘Have you thought about the jewelry business?’”

Kunz had been working with his dad in a wholesale jewelry business, while continuing to meet with private retail clients. “We wanted to go back to the basics,” Burgan says. “We wanted more of a retail experience, but not traditional retail.”

Nine-Eighteen operates primarily by appointment and offers a number of designer lines as well as traditional best-selling basics, such as diamond studs and hoops.

“Clients like exclusivity, so while we wanted to lean more retail we didn’t want to lose the private shopping experience,” Burgan says. “We brought a lot of what our mom and dad taught us back into the business. Their business was very social, they did a lot of events and partner tie-ins.”

So they host happy hours for small groups, trunk shows and even art shows in their 1,000-square-foot space.

They self-funded their business and had a head start as new store owners since the family already had strong vendor relationships.

“What my dad didn’t have and what we cultivated was the fashion designer set of relationships,” Burgan says. “We have chosen to do business only with people that we truly like, that we have a connection with, at least on the supplier side of the business.” The business has taken off, doubling its growth each year and going head to head with Dallas’ eight-figure independents in consumer media popularity contests.

“Trust is crucial,” Burgan says. “Our business has been predominantly word-of-mouth referrals. We are starting to do paid advertising and print marketing. But our engagement rates on social media and email marketing are through the roof.” They’ve come full circle and the jewelry bug is likely to infect the next generation.

Burgan’s oldest daughter, Cassie, is 12 and she’s already doing her share of case cleaning and gift-wrapping, i.e. grunt work. “She asks me all the time, ‘Can I come down and work?’” Kim says. “She’s cheap labor.”

WHAT I’VE LEARNED

Kim Burgan

  • Be patient. “It’s a slow road. You have got to understand that. It’s not going to happen overnight and I need to keep reminding myself of that.”
  • Offer stellar service. “A lot of it we learned from our parents. Things they taught us when we were 12 years old, the way you treat customers, the way you treat vendors.”
  • Word of mouth and engaging social media can create trust and propel a business to succeed.

J. Landa (formerly J. Silver), Houston, TX

OWNER: Jay Landa; FOUNDED: 1999; RENOVATED AND REIMAGINED: 2013; EMPLOYEES: 3 full-time; 3 part-time; UNIQUE SELLING PROPOSITION: Designer collections

 

JAY LANDA studied government and English in college. But it was an internship at the Gap, of all places, that led to his unexpected career twist. After he graduated, Landa was recruited by Donna Karan, and almost against his will, he says, he shifted his focus to fashion.

In 2011, Kunz and Burgan opened Nine-Eighteen, a fast-rising Dallas jewelry boutique named for that important day in their shared history. It seems inevitable, looking back.

Later, he moved to Houston and began buying and selling silver jewelry and then designing his own. Something clicked. “It began a crazy journey,” Landa recalls. “I would show at festivals, private homes, out of the trunk of my car. I traveled all over, and my vision was to open a storefront.”

His search led him to Houston’s Rice Village, a heavily trafficked and casually upscale conglomeration of strip malls, apartments and restaurants that lends itself to window shopping. “The gift has always been the location for me,” he says. “I didn’t have to advertise so much, because people are always walking by.”

But his first encounter with a landlord there was more than a little intimidating to a fledgling, 20-something entrepreneur without a business plan. The property company insisted he needed extensive financial proof that he could make a go of it — proof he didn’t have and felt sure he didn’t need at the time.

He looked into another, older shopping center a couple blocks away, whose landlord turned out to have an old-school approach. “The owner said, ‘If you want this space, it’s yours.’ All I needed was the first month’s rent.”

He wanted it; the store became J Silver.

As he grew into his business, he began understanding his market by listening to clients, vendors and designers. “I had been catering to all kinds of people at festivals, but I found an interesting demographic here. I thought, ‘This is the market I want to cater to,’ and I need good pieces, classic looks and a variety of price points to do that.”

His mom, who is a retail entrepreneur as well, has been an important mentor.

“My mom’s advice has always been to stay grounded and make good sound decisions and enjoy the moment. I tend to be very intense and overly ambitious sometimes.”

As his business became more successful, designer Chan Luu, who sells some of her pieces exclusively at his store, became a mentor, too.

“She pushed me to see outside my realm of consciousness, to consider global markets,” Landa says. “I began to see how attainable the world is, how exciting other cultures are. Travel has definitely helped, and social media.”

One outgrowth of that change in perspective was Landa’s pursuit of e-commerce, which accounts for perhaps 10 percent of his business now, but which he would like to see grow to at least 50 percent.

“I have to treat e-commerce as I would a storefront to take it seriously. Being in an international city, people from all over the world come to the store so it’s important to keep the website current, relevant and structured.”

In addition to his own and Chan Luu’s jewelry, Landa carries extensive lines from Alexis Bittar, Uno de 50 and Dian Malouf. “I don’t do anything halfway,” he says.

At age 40, Landa seeks more financial advice than he did in the beginning, looking to the future and an exit strategy. “The idea is that in 10 years, I may sell my brand — or not — but I want to know what my options are.”

WHAT I’VE LEARNED

Jay Landa

  • Surround yourself with young minds; those are the innovators. Landa recently hired two recent college graduates who live and breathe social media.
  • Reach out to the local media to garner as much free publicity as possible. Landa recently hosted a bloggers’ night out at the store, for example.
  • Believe in the product. When selecting a new line for his store, Landa takes a personal approach. “I have to like their designs, it has to flow in the store, price point is important and I have to like how they conduct business. Integrity is very important to me. The designers I work with are friends of mine, people who have a personal relationship with me.”
  • When you find the right product, go all the way. Landa carries full lines from designers he represents.
  • Find a work-life balance. “That’s the most difficult part for me,” Landa admits. “I definitely take some vacation. I try to make myself completely disconnect. I’m closed on Sundays; I made a very conscious decision to do that.”

Ames Silversmithing, Ames, IA

OWNERS: Gary Youngberg; FOUNDED: 1976; EMPLOYEES: 9; UNIQUE SELLING PROPOSITION: Custom design



WHEN GARY YOUNGBERG was in college, he didn’t have the money to buy his girlfriend, Karen, a piece of jewelry. So he improvised, stringing together some cord and beads to make a necklace. (“Hey, it was the ’70s,” he says, in defense of his materials.) His girlfriend was thrilled — as were her friends, who all wanted one, too.

“I bought more cord and beads, produced more pieces and ended up selling them to girls in the surrounding dorms.” He also received requests for rings, pendants and earrings, so he checked a few books out of the library, bought some raw materials and transformed his dorm room desk into a rudimentary jeweler’s bench. “And yes, I did have a torch in my dorm room!” he says.

As he taught himself how to fabricate silver jewelry set with turquoise, jasper and agate, he began to lose interest in his classes. He started showing his wares at area art fairs and soon realized his hobby had some financial potential. “So, on a whim and with a strong desire to do something I liked, my girlfriend — who became my wife about a year later — and I decided to open Ames Silversmithing in downtown Ames.” He used $1,500 he had saved from selling his jewelry.

He was 19 years old.

“By the time that we opened on Aug. 1, 1976, I didn’t even have enough money to buy stamps. Fortunately, I was a waiter at a sorority so I had food on the table, but it was slow going at first. I’d hand out fliers in my bell-bottom jeans and tell people I was the new store in town. I’d work in my little 12-by-12-foot shop from 6 in the morning until 9 at night, my workbench and one display case sharing the same area. Eventually, a few people started showing up.”

As the business grew, both Gary and Karen received diamond training through the GIA, and Gary began working in gold, platinum and gemstones.

They were able to rent more space a year later, but Youngberg says it took about 10 years and subsequent expansions to feel that they had “made it.”

“Today, with nine employees, including my wife, two sons and two daughters-in-law, I can say not a day goes by that I don’t think about how I started and what a lucky man I am. Now if I can just get those five grandkids to follow.”

Having sons Kyle and Kirk join them in the business has been a graceful melding of the young and old, he says. “They value our business sense and we value what they brought to the store, and continue to bring to the store as far as technology goes. We’re still behind, but we are way more forward than if the boys weren’t in the business.

“I love what I do so much and I probably never will retire. In another 40 years the boys will come in the morning and Dad will be lying dead in the front of the store at age 92. That would be a hell of a way to go out.”

WHAT I’VE LEARNED

Gary Youngberg

  • Admit your mistakes. “If you try to cover it up, it gets worse and worse. I’ve made my mistakes and I regret every one, but I have addressed them head on. That’s the way we want to treat our customers.”
  • Do what you love.
  • Don’t overextend yourself. “The creation of our store has been an ongoing process and we’ve done what we’ve been able to do because we were conservative, and we made capital investments when necessary when we got to a growth phase. Some people want to keep expanding. No doubt I could have made more money, but I’m not greedy. You shouldn’t let the store run you. You should run the store.”
  • Be committed. “Those of us who have been successful understand you are working your ass off and not just 9 to 5. Hard work can reap great dividends.”

J Roberts Fine Jewelry, Jacksonville, FL

OWNERS: Bobby Wallo; FOUNDED: 2008; EMPLOYEES: 5; UNIQUE SELLING PROPOSITION: Stuller’s CounterSketch Studio

 


 
BOBBY WALLO worked in construction for 20 years before a glimpse into jewelry led to a radical career shift.

“I was working on a project with someone in the jewelry business, and I found myself becoming more interested in the industry and then eventually became enamored with it — all the gems and jewelry — and then I became infatuated with it.

“Also, as I got older I decided that I didn’t want to climb ladders the rest of my life. I found this was something I could do forever, so I decided to open my own store.”

Wallo opened his first store in 2008, the worst possible timing, he admits, in light of the Great Recession. He survived by being competitive and providing exceptional service, he says.

When his lease ran out five years later, he was forced to move, rebrand himself and start all over again in September 2013. In moving closer to downtown Jacksonville, Wallo says, “There’s a lot more happening near the inner city, more restaurants and a more energetic nightlife, and you can tell from those who visit the store that the people who live and work in the downtown area are more fashion-driven than the more family-oriented atmosphere in the suburbs.”

The new store is named for Wallo (Robert) and the J is for Joe Espinosa, the designer and bench jeweler who owns a portion of the business. Rich Gammiere, Wallo’s business partner for more than 30 years, continues to run the construction business and is also an investor in the jewelry store.

Wallo’s main focus is bridal. He and Espinosa recently became certified in Stuller’s CounterSketch Studio software, which Wallo believes will help his new business take off by offering customers easy input into designing their own rings. It will set him apart in his market with a unique selling proposition.

Besides, he says, being able to build something in front of someone’s eyes is kind of cool.

After five years, the glamour hasn’t worn off.

“It’s a fun experience to be a part of,” he says.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED

Bobby Wallo

  • Stand behind everything you do and say. We guarantee the ring for life.
  • If a customer ever loses a stone we take care of it. We don’t charge for a service plan. Everything is inclusive.
  • It’s not for the fainthearted. You really have to be dedicated to work a lot of hours. You’d better like dealing with people.
  • You’ve got to want to do it — to have it in your blood — to do it with sincerity and a smile. If your heart’s not in it, your gut’s not in it, then don’t get into it.

Eileen McClelland is the Managing Editor of INSTORE. She believes that every jewelry store has the power of cool within them.

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